There is not a farm scene more beautiful than fields of uniformly tall, tasseled corn, butting up to waist high, weed-free soybeans waving in the breeze, set against carpets of well-manicured road ditches and close-clipped waterways. From the perspective of this Iowa farm kid, southern Tazewell County, Illinois is simply beautiful to behold; a vision straight out of a children’s storybook.
Tazewell County is neither flat, nor steep. The area is dominated by row crop in an almost level landscape with gently sloping rises. There are no visible wet spots that might detract from the uniformly and perfectly straight rows of crops. There are almost no fences; corn and soybeans are planted right up to the road ditches – creating a striking visual contrast. An occasional waterway snakes through a field. Every mile, there is a straight road running either north and south or east and west. Gravel roads are the exception, as most of the roads, even the off-roads, are paved. No dust. Farmsteads dot the sections. They are neat, clean and freshly painted. It is easy to see the pride farmers have in their operations.
For me, this landscape is impressive. It must have taken a herculean effort, accomplished through great financial sacrifice and shear will power, to drain this land for production. And it is hard to imagine how many people throughout the world these farmers feed. This is a very special place. But as I drove through the countryside, I realized I am conflicted.
It happened when I began looking in the road ditches, and seeing remnants of big bluestem and prairie cordgrass. The ramifications of setting down this idyllic agricultural landscape began to sink in.
There are hundreds of thousands of acres of beautiful farm fields in Tazewell County. But to achieve productive farmland, hundreds of thousands of acres of prairies and forest had to be ripped up and converted to cropland. And miles of hand-dug tile needed to be installed to drain the wetlands.
Under all of those fields, millions of feet of tile carry nitrates to drainage ditches, and then to streams, and then to rivers, and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico. This year marks the largest hypoxic area (or dead zone) in the Gulf of Mexico.
The vast monoculture of corn and soybeans found here severely limits biodiversity. It is difficult to imagine any significant level of wildlife diversity in such clean fields. Even grassland birds are limited.
Because the landscape has been so extensively tilled, soil erosion has occurred. The topsoil that was built up over thousands of years is now being lost 10 to 20 times faster than it is being replaced.
But what makes Tazewell County, Illinois different than any other agricultural landscape…absolutely nothing. This same dichotomy between productive agriculture and declining natural resources plays out across the United States.
I am guessing I am not the only farm kid that has such mixed emotions about our agricultural system. On one hand, I have incredible pride in our agricultural landscapes, our farming communities, and our way of life. But on the other hand, I have a sense of regret for the damage we have done, and the damage we continue to do, to our environment. I know we cannot bring back vast acreages of prairies and regenerate our soils at a replacement rate, but we can do a better job than we are currently doing.
I realize farmers don’t get up in the morning and think, “Wow, I get to pollute the waters of the United States today,” or “I am going to cause more topsoil to erode off my field.” But we can and must do better. As a farm kid, the next time you talk to your ag retailer, ask him or her how you can work together to improve agriculture’s footprint on the environment.
Note: I visited Tazewell County last week while sharing some ideas at a Precision Conservation Management (PCM) meeting in Delavan, Illinois. Thanks to Clay and Jacob for their continuous conservation work to protect the natural resources of Illinois. Keep up the good work!